Thursday, August 4, 2011

Seeds of Change - What comes next: study abroad and youth-led social change in Cuba

This post marks the second entry for the current Roots of Hope blog theme: Seeds of Change. To read previous entries, see How Cell Phones Can Shake a Nation.

By Sam Tabory

It turns out that I didn’t spend a semester studying abroad in Cuba so that I could better grasp Cuban history, the Cuban experience, or the Cuban context. Instead, I spent that semester coming to the conclusion that the situation is so intricately and overwhelmingly complex, that all I could do was ride the wave, trying to take in as much as possible, until a Miami-bound flight spit me back out in the States four months later. Cuba opened my eyes to a lot. I could try to tell you about it, but that’s not what this post is about. My experience in Cuba ended months ago, and now I've moved on to a very different place in my life, albeit still carrying with me the lessons I learned while on the island. But the Cuban youth with whom I shared those experiences and with whom I formed deep bonds still live on the island. They still endure the daily struggle. They are still looking for a way out. For a new society. For something to change.

That’s what this post is about. It is about those youth, and the potential that study abroad programs have to help them as they seek to define their own futures. Just as cell phones and the Internet are opening new avenues that allow access to information and the outside world, so too are study abroad programs. When a foreign student steps off a plane at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, a new stimulus is being introduced to the island. That young person will not only take away his own impressions of the island to share with the world, but he will also leave impressions. As a university student, he will inevitably make awkward small talk in class, form friendships, chat with taxi drivers, join intramural soccer teams, get drunk over dominoes, go to clubs, have heart-to-hearts, argue about sexualities, fight about politics, debate moral and material paradigms, etc. He will, simply put, live his life for four months, a semester, a year…whatever it may be, and he will leave behind an impression, even if limited, of what type of people and what type of ideas are to be found in the broader global arena. In a word, he will become a vignette, to be added to a larger collection of vignettes of all outsiders who have set foot on the island. And it is these vignettes that become food for critical thought as young people in Cuba explore and experiment with what type of new society they want to create. This is the value of study abroad in Cuba.

But don’t make the mistake of assuming that study abroad should be seen as an evangelizing force to spread the gospel of the western world. The Cuban students with whom I built strong friendships were as discerning and critical as university students anywhere. They understand the need for change on the island, but they also understand that they must be careful as to which models of change they employ. Most Cubans will readily agree that their own model or status quo is not working, but that does not mean that they are ready to blindly adopt foreign norms. They have strong opinions about social justice and the role that the State should play in the lives of citizens. These opinions are real and genuine, firmly grounded in historical tradition and collective memory, not simply the rhetoric of Fidel. To assume that study abroad in Cuba is a force by which to indoctrinate Cuban youth is incorrect. Its purpose is to introduce as many new ideas and stimuli as possible, to give young people in Cuba access to as many models as possible, so that they can begin the individual but also collective process of deciding which qualities, characteristics and models of the outside world are best for them, and which are not. Who do they want to emulate, and whose likeness do they want to avoid? These are the questions that need to be answered as Cuba moves forward in forging its future.

But the work of forging a new society is not neat. It is messy and contradictory and ultimately a very human and imprecise endeavor. It requires that those undertaking the process are the most well-informed and worldly individuals a given society has to offer. But the youth of Cuba don’t have access to global travel opportunities and study abroad programs. If they cannot see the world, the world must come to them. Although they are an imperfect stopgap, study abroad programs administered by European and North American universities are an important resource in making sure that Cuban youth have at least limited access to the schools of thought and ideologies of the global arena.

I could write pages and pages about the personal benefits that I got from studying abroad in Cuba, but the real importance of study abroad programs has more to do with what Cuban students are able to do with the raw intellectual material of having foreign nationals studying in their classrooms. Study abroad in Cuba isn’t about benevolence or proselytizing. It’s about a two-way exchange of information. Anyone who spends significant time on the island will be changed, for better or for worse. But the Cuban youth with whom you interact will also be changed, for better or for worse. Societies are built, opinions are formed, and the world goes round as we are introduced to and react to stimuli. The more stimuli we are exposed to, the faster things move. To study abroad in Cuba is to be such a stimulus in the context of a national transition. Cuba will change, and it will do so dramatically. But what that change will look like is still a matter of debate, as it should be. Study abroad programs, and the foreign stimuli they introduce, are an important component of keeping that debate alive as young people in Cuba seek to define and mold their own futures.

Sam Tabory is a senior at Tulane University. He spent the fall semester of 2010 living and studying in Cuba as a student at the University of Havana. He can be reached at

1 comment:

Sander said...

Your experiences in Cuba sound amazing! Check out our community for global nomads at and if you have a second share your experiences with our community via our survey. It's something I feel our community could learn a lot from especially as study abroad in Cuba becomes more viable with the opening of US-Cuban relations.